Originally Posted by Galaxy
I generally think of reference boards as the cost saving option with custom boards being the superior choice for most applications, although as others have said they do have the advantage of standardization for aftermarket cooling. You can still buy universal coolers and waterblocks to fit most all non-reference cards though. We generally move away from reference designs pretty quickly after a new GPU launches since there are quite a few improvements to be made with a custom PCB.
Here are some examples of the advantages present in some of our recent GC/SOC edition cards:
-Extended PCB layout for better signal path
-High quality shielded inductors
-DirectFET MOSFETs (better cooling and EMI)
-Voltage read points
-POSCAP and MLCC capacitors (longer life, more stable)
-Additional power phases (more stable current, higher OC potential)
-Digital PWM controllers
-Nicer looking PCB colors (Black, White, etc.)
-Shielded analog outputs for cleaner signal when using DVI to VGA adapters
-Thru-board ventilation near MOSFETs for better component cooling
Needless to say, there can be some very real performance differences vs. reference boards, even without the custom coolers.